Cattle Troughed in Udaipur

What happens to you in the Holi festival. Unfortunately not my photo - I was too chicken shit to take my camera out.

Linda and spent a few months travelling around India in Spring 1993. We arrived in Udaipur around the time of the Holi festival.  We found ourselves a wonderful lodging in a small family run guesthouse.  The room had a large balcony overlooking a narrow street by the ghats, and photographs of colonial lion hunts on the wall.  The youngest son of the owners, a lad around eight, was fascinated by us, and eager to take us out for the celebrations.

Earlier in the day, Linda and I had ventured out by ourselves and been plastered with paint, powder and water.  Several times men had taken the daubing as an opportunity to grope Lin, and on one occaision I was felt up by a man whose face turned quite pale when he realised he was cupping a pair of testicles.  I did have long hair at the time, but I hadn’t considered myself that girlish.

After all this, Linda was in no mood for a repeat, so the kid and I headed out for the afternoon without her.  We worked our way through the masses, more paint and water making its way onto us.  My guide planned to take me to his uncle’s house where a private celebration was taking place.  We headed out of the teeming centre into quieter streets.

As the streets grew deserted we encountered a group of very excited youths who approached us with much mirth and handfuls of colourful powder which they rubbed into my hair.  They were  a mix of children and teens, numbering about 30, and as they smeared they encircled us.  The crowd started to feel more like a mob, and a more focussed one than the chaos of the ghats.  My young guide was squeezed out the edge, but I was very much trapped at the centre.  Hands grabbed at my arms, then suddenly I was taken by the ankles too, and thrust up into the air over the crowd.  I shouted and struggled, and my guide screamed and begged them to put me down.

As if of one mind, they worked their way down the street, still holding me aloft.  I then spotted their destination – a large water trough used for watering cattle.  I squirmed and writhed with a greater urgency, punching and kicking.  My body was heaved up and down by the multitude of small and larger hands.  Laughter grew as they neared the trough, and the embarrassing yet classic image of being dumped in it played through my head.  Somehow, with a yank of hair here  and kick to the head there I managed to free myself, and struggle to the ground.

A friendly hand now gripped my arm, and my guide towed me down an alley way towards his uncle’s house.  We pushed through a gate and slammed it shut.  Looking through a crack I could see the mob behind, screaming and shouting with some anger now, frustrated that their little joke had broken down at the last minute.  In my memory they look like a Bollywood crowd of thugs, the ring leaders wearing colourful bandannas, about to break out into shrill song and fantastic choreography.  The voice of someone older rang out over the wall in Hindi.  I was tugged into the house.

Inside I was again encircled by people who wanted to rub my hair.  This time it was women, all of whom were fascinated by my long hair.  I brush was produced and the paint and powder was combed away.  I was pampered with curious looks and indian festival foods, extremely pleasant, until I started to feel desperately uncomfortable with being the centre of attention, albeit in a less physically dangerous way.  I told the kid I should be getting back to Linda.  We made our thankful goodbyes, and took a quick look over the gate before stepping out.  Around a couple of corners the mob was waiting for us after their musical number – back to the story.

This was getting tiresome for me, and also a little terrifying.  The demographic of the gang seemed to have drifted up the age and size scale – I’d escaped the cattle trough, but possibly worse was now on the agenda.  Again the kid pleaded them to go away.  I saw the need to be more persuasive and picked up a large chunk of concrete, raised it above my head, and gave a shriek I hoped demonstrated a willingness to cave in a skull.  They kept their distance, but followed as we backed away.  As we neared the still densely crowded street, I threw the concrete down at their feet and we dashed in to the melee.

When we reached the hotel, the kid, Linda and I took revenge on the people from Udaipur by tipping bucket loads of water over every man who passed beneath our balcony for the rest of the afternoon.


Notes from the Congo

Kinshasa Planes

I’d like to take a lot of photographs in Kinshasa, as it is a place that looks completely different from what I imagined. However, there are three reasons I have not taken very many photos in Kinshasa. Firstly, the whole time I have been here the sky has been completely overcast – I’m told it can be like this for months, with no glimpse of blue sky.

The second reason is that I have been incredibly busy with work – the usual routine of hotel, office, restaraunt and hotel again every day. This normally leads to me taking many photos from whatever vehicle ferries me between these locations.

But I haven’t even done much of that this trip, for the third reason – apparently it is very easy to get in trouble for taking photographs in Kinshasa and DRC in general. The military and police are always concerned about photographs being taken of personnel, equipment and locations, perhaps for security reasons, but often for the opportunities that catching someone presents, e.g. cause enough trouble for that person that they feel inclined to make it worthwhile for the policeman/soldier to forget they saw it happen.

So I’m sad that I haven’t many photos. Ironically, today whilst stuck in traffic, I watched a man stand in the very middle of the road, in front of a policeman, taking photographs for several minutes, and no one said anything. I guess it is ok for Congolese to take photos – or perhaps I am over cautious.

Kinshasa Pool

On my first drive into the office the traffic stopped suddenly and there were loud sirens and horns approaching. We stopped at a junction as a police pickup truck swerved widely from one side of the road to the other, throwing the six armed cops around in the back. This was shortly followed by a number of police cars in formation, before a shiny pick up truck zoomed by – I caught a glimpse of giant african men in sharp suits and sharp sunglasses looking out in all directions from the vehicle – body guards. After this, hurtling with urgency was a limousine with blackened windows which I am told carried the prime minister. After this a couple more Land Cruisers, more police cars, and at the tail end of the motorcade another pick up carrying six police armed with rocket launchers. The body guards stuck in my head.

Needless to say I didn’t take any photos.

Kinshasa Street

Today I flew from Kinshasa to Bukavu – from the extreme west of DRC to its extreme East. The area around Bukavu is crawling with soldiers – this is the part of DRC that has experienced the worst fighting during the counties decade plus of disturbances. There have been rumblings about Rwanda becoming involved again, which could throw the country back into war – however at the moment troops are not amassing at the border, and I am told we will have good warning before anything might start.

Apparently this is the most dangerous place I have visited with Christian Aid – despite the presence of all the soldiers and police, so far I feel quite safe. The scariest thing to happen to me till now was last night.

I woke up at about 2:30 and suddenly realised I had an odd pain in my upper lip. I reached up to it and found it swelling. I switched the light on and rushed to the bathroom, and actually watched my top lip swell up further. I briefly panicked and searched my bed for a poisonous spider, recalling how I had seen a guy in Ethiopia whose nose had been used by a spider for laying its eggs, and had been rudely awakened by the hatching. He had to paint his nose with a special pink medicine for a week.

So far no hatching to report from my lip. The swelling is going down.

Harare economics for beginners

I arrived in Harare at about 11am, but the Zimbabwe effect kicked in prior to touching down on the runway. A fuel shortage in Harare meant that for the Air Malawi flight to be able to return to Malawi, it needed to completely fill its tanks, and this meant that some luggage had to be removed. The passengers were presented with a trolley with the bags selected to follow at a later date, and there was mine. I tried to argue, but they kept saying it was for my own safety, and were not willing to make any changes. However, they did let me open my bag and grab a change of clothes and other items I really didn’t want to be delayed. The rather stern airport/airline official informed me the next flight from Blantyre to Harare would be on Saturday.

Harare international airport (where the plane was greeted soon after landing by a fuel truck – perhaps the fuel shortage was merely a rumour) is a remarkably modern airport, more similar to Seatac or Gatwick than it is to Nairobi or Lusaka – in fact it outshines many European airports in terms of cleanliness. The ceilings are high, the floors polished, and the space huge. Due to the current situation there are not a great deal of flights through this airport, so it is also remarkably quiet.

I had been informed, rather alarmingly, by my colleagues here that I should make sure to “just tell the truth” when confronted by immigration officials, which somewhat increased my feelings of trepidation about dealing with the bureacracy. However, as ever with such anticipation, the two immigration officers who greeted me (not so much as peered over the high booth at me) were not really interested in any sort of conversation. $55 later my passport was stamped up with a 30 day business visa, and I was on my way, holding my plastic bag of pants and toiletries in one hand and my trusty ukulele in the other. Customs, which I had similarly been warned about (“just walk through, don’t declare anything or hand any forms over”), was a breeze, with the staff far too deep in their own conversations to pay attention to any passengers.

The other side of officialdom, I was met by Jealous, a smily chap who drives and logisticizes for Christian Aid, who patiently waited while I tracked down the Air Malawi staff who could at some point in the future reunite me with the rest of my clothes. Then we headed into town and Jealous began to explain the situation here to me.

As you will likely know, Zimbabwe is currently in a condition of hyperinflation, which sounds very dull and boring and distant from the real world. The value of the Zimbabwean Dollar is in free fall in relation to hard currencies such as the British Pound, US Dollar or South African Rand (not exactly “hard” itself). This means that every time someone in Zimbabwe wants to import something, it costs considerably more than the last time they did it – and of course this difference is passed on to subsequent purchasers. So prices in shops go up and up. In a country where almost everything is imported (estimates are that 50% of food is imported into this, what was once the breadbasket of Africa) this means the price for anything you care to name will be different from one week (or even day) to the next. Another way of understanding it – if inflation is over 100% a month , if you keep money in a bank account for a month, you’ll be able to buy less than half what you could have done if you’d blown it all on pay day! The official inflation rate in Zimbabwe is 4,000%!

This makes for a chaotic and stressfull life for people in Zimbabwe, apart from the few who have access to hard currency, and can thus change a little as they need it. As a visitor I fall into this category, and while it is complicated, as I will describe later, for a Zimbabwean life is very hard. For example, Jealous told me how he has a son at a boarding school somewhere else in Zimbabwe. They payment for the school is made annually, however, since the price of food is doubling each month in ZW$ terms the fees paid cannot possibly cover the cost of food for Jealous’s son and other students. So the school has little choice (short of closing) but to ask the parents to make emergency payments each month to cover the increased cost. And that is the situation for someone in a relatively well paid and stable job. Unemployment is running at about 80%.

For a visitor like myself with hard currency well hidden and secured over various parts of his body, the greatest stresses are spared, but there are some interesting things that must be born in mind.

There are several exchange rates which must be understood. There is the official exchange rate of ZW$250 to the US dollar. There is the semi-official negotiated exchange rate used by NGOs and other international organisations of ZW$20,000. And there is the parallel market rate of ZW$90,000. For official expenses I am changing at the ZW$20,000 rate, which means what I spend money on officially costs roughly five times more than it could. But there is worse! The hotel is allowed to charge for accomodation in USD, but must charge for meals, laundry etc in ZWD. But if you put these things on your room bill, they must be converted to USD at the official rate of 250:1. Let’s look at buying a beer at the bar. A bottle of Zambezi beer (very tasty!) costs ZW$50,000. At the black market rate, that is somewhere between 50 and 60 cents. At the rate I’ve been using, it is $2.50. But if I make the mistake of signing for that beer, when I come to check out US$200 will have been added to my bill. When I enquired about laundry at the check in counter, the concierge informed me that getting a suit dry cleaned would cost $1,200 if I signed for it. “That can be quite embarrasing” he said.

And remember that inflation – the non-official rates change on a daily basis! Tomorrow the black market rate may be as high as ZW$100,000 to US$1. The beer may cost 60,000 tomorrow. But the official rate stays at $250, inflating my tab considerably.

Everyone in Zimbabwe I have met so far seems to be talking and thinking about money all the time – things are so complex, I am not surprised. I was surprised to hear that the stock market here is doing fairly well, with many middle class participants, and some people even making a tidy profit in companies that have found legal loopholes or other ways to beat the system. Of course, some people are losing everything, but the way things are here, you lose everything by standing still.

What amazes me is that the country isn’t in a total state of decay. Much of the infrastructure (in Harare at least) is operational – tap water is even supposedly drinkable, traffic lights work, electricity flows, the internet connection in our office here is easily the best I have seen in seven African countries. Economically, things have been “unsustainable” here since 1999 – rather a sustained record of economic chaos. How much can it spiral before something happens, and does this duration of extreme problems translate into extreme outcomes. Time may tell…

It’s all very strange.

Sweating it out in Nigeria

National Mosque, Abuja, Nigeria
Work has brought me to the capital of Nigeria – Abuja. Abuja immediately brings to mind two places – Houston with its wide highways, (always being widened further) tail-gating drivers, high humidty and the necessity of driving between any two locations or risk being stared at for being wierd (if they don’t just run you over); and Milton Keynes which, when I was growing up there, was a mass of building sites, roundabouts and pretty much zero sense if it being a place. Add to that a smattering of Africa – impromptu restaraunts between building plots, people hawking out of containers carried on their heads, and a distinct lack of electricity where and when you really need it. There you have Abuja.

I’m setting up the IT part of the new office here. That’s where the electricity outage really gets in the way. Computers and networks and internet connections all need electricity. This part of town only gets electricity during night-time hours, despite it being part of the city that only has offices, government ministries and banks. So the place hums with the sound of a hundred and fifty generators. Except for our building. I’m told the generator here blew a gasket. I thought that was something they only said in cartoons.

This morning when I arrived, there were lights in the foyer. I thought this might turn into a super productive day, but as the lift reached the sixth floor, everything went dark – we’d caught the last five minutes of electricity from the power company. After levering the lift door open I tried to figure out what to do with the rest of the day. The network cabling is 90% done (need electricity to check it actually works). The partitioners are 60% done (need electricity to cut a hole in the frame so we can pass network cables). The internet connection people were due in this morning, but we won’t be online without electricity. How frustrating.

Luckily I am able to connect with my battery powered laptop to some unsuspecting soul’s wireless network. Which lets me check my email and see what is going on in the world. I also got to work on a proper scaled floor plan of the office with the down time.

This time last week I was in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Freetown is a different kind of place altogether. It is more humid than Abuja, and electricity is only on two or three hours a month. This is made up for by fantastic seafood and the fact that everyone has a generator running all the time.

I quickly managed to infect my flash disk with a boot sector virus, which seemed to wipe out all my data. This seemed to happen by leaving the flash drive plugged in while rebooting someone else’s computer. I had to format the drive to get rid of the virus. I didn’t have time to disinfect the computer that infected my drive. Boot sector viruses are tricky to fix. Annoyingly, Symantec Corporate Edition does not provide the facility for this. Yet another point against this increasingly pointless bit of software.

Asides from this, the office in Freetown was remarkably straight forward. The fears of trojan horses and ferocious levels of file sharing proved to be unfounded. The explanation for the slow internet connection I was supposed to sort out seems to be high expectations from the users of the connection. Satellite always feels a bit slow because of the latency. Having a shared downlink also means the speed is not consistant.

Beach in Freetown, Sierra Leone

Outside of office work, I managed to spend a morning on the beach in Freetown. There were maybe thirty energetic football matches going on along the beach. I stopped at a bar for a couple of beers to watch the world go by. I ate a rather unripe mango which was carefully cut into tear of segments, and sprinkled with salt and curry powder. Not sure how I felt about that – it wasn’t unpleasant, but surely not the best way to enjoy mango. Maybe unripe mango though – it wasn’t quite the season.

Lynda, the country rep in Sierra Leone took me to a beautiful restaurant about an hours drive out of town, where I ate two lobsters.

It was a fantastic setting – see attached 360 degree “virtual reality” panorama. The lobsters were very delicious.

Mountain biking in Abuja

For my weekend in Abuja, I went mountain biking with the country rep and some friends who kindly lent me a bike. It was exhaustingly hot – we only covered about 8 miles in two and a bit hours. Was nice riding across streams, and getting lost amongst ravines. I wish Yuki and I had taken bikes to Tanzania now – it would have been great for exploring offroad around where we were living.

So a week left. Hopefully I can get everything done, as I can’t handle being here for another weekend, nice as it was. Abuja has nothing happening at all. Really dead and dull. I hope the electricity comes soon.

Waiting at the telecentre

Waiting really sucks.

Time doing nothing is no problem, but when you are waiting for someone it is like negative doing.

You could be doing something, but you cannot because you have to remain somewhere, otherwise you will not make your rendezvous.  In an African country where a white man already sticks out, waiting increases your conspicuousness.

In general here white folk have business to take care of.

To linger and look ponderously for the familiar face or vehicle.

It is like adding a neon sign.

As if I wasn’t already nervous at the prospect of waiting some more, suddenly I start to notice that other people have noticed me.

One you spot one person pointing in your direction, you feel the target of some imagined conspiracy.

Time to move, but moving means you may be missed by the person who would collect you.

Like I said, so much less than doing nothing.

It goes beyond boredom towards some kind of non-exhilerating fear.

You have time to think and dream, and this thought makes it no easier.

Not speaking the language makes it worse.

No breaks are permitted from the paranoia.

Small talk provides no relief.

Ah – finally – the relief of being collected.

The momentary past melts away, the fear passed, the pointing fingers become a mark of my mini-celebrity once more.

All is forgiven.